60 years later: A last hurrah for WW2 vets
After World War 2 ended in 1945 many ex-GIs set up what can best be described as "alumni associations" for the outfits in which they had served. Serving in the same regiments, divisions, Air Corps groups, naval vessels and other military units, the men had bonded emotionally and had become close-knit groups. Having shared the same wartime experiences, they wanted to retain a fraternal relationship as civilians. Similar groups were organized for men who had engaged in the same battles or had served in the same war theaters.
I have always been disappointed that my own outfit, the 903rd Signal Co. Depot (Aviation), did not set up such a fraternal postwar group. One reason was its unusual history. After being activated in Oklahoma, the company was shipped to Egypt in late 1942, where it was attached for a while to the British 8th Army. Some of its men were in combat--an uncommon experience for the telephone linesmen and repeatermen, radio operators and repairmen, truck drivers, supply clerks, cryptographers, and radar repairmen who made up the outfit. (In Iraq, of course, such support troops are being routinely exposed to combat.)
In early 1944 the company boarded a ship at Port Suez, thinking it was being shipped back to the U.S. Instead, the outfit landed in Bombay. Shortly after, I was one of about a dozen 19-year olds, newly arrived in India, who joined the under-strength 903rd in Bihar and Bengal provinces to which the company had been assigned.
Over the next year, those who had served in Egypt began to be rotated back to the States and fresh troops periodically arrived to replace them. This is why the company lacked the cohesion that would have it easier to set up a postwar civilian outfit. I was stationed for much of my overseas duty at the Bengal Air Depot, about 60 miles north of Calcutta. The 893rd Signal Co., the same type of unit as the 903rd, was also based there. The two companies lived and worked closely. I became friends with several of the men in the 893rd, and we remained in contact after being discharged from the Army.
The 893rd was shipped overseas as a group and remained pretty much together for two years in India. They enjoyed a camaraderie that led easily to setting up a postwar fraternal organization. Over the past 60 years they have had annual reunions, have published a bi-annual newsletter, and in recent years even set up an Internet web site. In effect, I became an honorary member when two of my 893rd friends had me added to the group's mailing roster. I am regularly invited to their reunions (I have not attended any), and I receive their newsletter. Interestingly, I recently learned that one of the 893rd men I knew well in India is New York Senator Chuck Schumer's father. (I recently met Abe Schumer, the Senator's father, when he visited my community in New Jersey.)
About 15 years ago I became aware of the existence of the China-Burma-India Veterans Assn., only after seeing its emblem on some one's auto bumper. I am now a member of the association's Gold Coast "basha" in south Florida, where I have a winter home. (A "basha" was a primitive structure that functioned as a military barracks throughout the CBI.) I attend monthly luncheons when they are scheduled in Palm Beach County, close to my home in Boynton Beach. None of its members had been based near me in India, but I enjoy reminiscing about our common wartime experiences in an exotic region that produced culture shock for young American soldiers unacquainted with the Orient. My wife loyally accompanies me to the luncheons and is probably wearied listening to wartime tales that she has often heard before. Our camaraderie is marked by a frustration that we served in an almost forgotten theater of war which never received the public attention of the European and South Pacific campaigns. But we are confident that we had a critical role in the CBI that led to Japan's defeat and the end of a horrible war.
Sixty years after the end of WW2 the veterans groups are now sadly facing a last hurrah. The youngest of the WW2 veterans is at least 79 or 80, and this year will be the last time for organized reunons. The charters of the 893rd Signal association, the CBI Vets, and most of the other WW2 veterans groups provide for their disbanding in 2005. Facing a foe more formidable than any foreign enemy--old age--the WW2 veterans organizations are folding up across the country.
Stubbornly, however, one Florida CBI basha has voted "to extend our charter to 2007 and hopefully beyond." I wish them good luck.